Legacy Russell, a curator, author, and one of the art world’s leading voices, delivered an urgent message during a speech last week, calling the present moment across the cultural sector “a feminist emergency.”
Speaking at the annual benefit luncheon and awards ceremony for ArtTable, a New York-based non-profit organization dedicated to women working in the visual arts, Russell was there to deliver a keynote speech considering the future of feminism and the arts. The event was to honor artists Carol Cole Levin and art historian Nicole Fleetwood for their contributions to the field.
Just a few troubling statistics was all Russell needed to illustrate her point. She cited a 2020 museum director survey whose respondents were 91% White and 52% women. Another industry report, Russell noted, found that institutions with budgets over $15 million were more often times led by men than those with budgets lower than that threshold. The discrepancies seem all the more staggering when considering that graduate programs and art institutions remaining dominated by women.
“It’s a daunting task,” Russell told the nearly 250 attendees in her opening remarks. “It prompts me to query: Which future? Which feminism?,” she continued, describing Levin and Fleetwood as two people, “who have brought those questions to the fore.”
Last year, Russell joined The Kitchen, a performance arts space in New York founded five decades ago and that has long been known as an experimental hub. Russell, who penned the 2020 manifesto Glitch Feminism and formerly served as an associate curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, described the institution she now leads as “the place that existed in the juncture before the future we stand in now is even built.”
Accepting the organization’s leadership award was Fleetwood, who has gained acclaim for her 2020 book Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration. The opus explores the carceral state, its representations and its expense on Black women — who, the historian argues, shoulder much of it’s ramifications. Levin — recognized with a “distinguished service” award — is a North Carolina artist who studied under the likes of feminist standard-bearers like Judy Chicago and Lynda Benglis. She focused on the breast in much of he work and collected work by her mentees.
But the issues that the art world continues to face are the same ones that varying factions of feminist thinkers have confronted in the past. They are far larger than bifurcations of gender, Russell reminded her audience. “Trans identified and queer people continue to be relatively invisible in the reporting on arts institutions.”
Russell called to attention that museums with smaller budgets are “the exact mission-specific cultural organizations who have been built to do the future leaning work as such.”
“Still, we see institutions continue to scramble to address decades, centuries of inequity by implementing changes that only look like a small piece of the puzzle in a moment where we continue to talk about decolonizing the institution as a call for change,” she continued.
Her remarks echo calls that led to the recent demise of “girlboss feminism,” a term coined by entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso where female corporate professional achievement was considered equivalent to equality. Many have criticized the phenomenon as favoring white upper-income women in the workplace and on institutional boards.
In her remarks, Russell asked the the room’s constituents to look inwardly. She noted that art institutions’ dependency on the wealthy class exacerbates socioeconomic and racial inequities.
“When we think about the future, feminism and the arts is inextricably intertwined with an emergency resource alongside an economic emergency, with institutions relying on significant parts of their revenue to come from individuals, patrons, foundations and corporate sponsorships,” Russell said.
Further emphasizing the urgency to amend these gaps, Russell examined what “decolonizing,” an institution really means. “We have to examine closely what it means for people to take up the task of advocacy and shaping channels of direct support for artists and art works. Cultural institutions cannot transform without this.”
“To invest in the future of feminism is to shape a different type of feedback loop, one that does experimental work, innovating through and beyond established canons. Female identified people, working class people, disabled people, people of color, femme people have always been a part of art history and we didn’t just get here. We’ve been here all along.”